`Stoning The Devil' Began Mecca's Tunnel Tragedy

MANAMA, Bahrain - The Moslem pilgrims who crowded into the Mo'essem tunnel in Mecca were hurrying to perform the ritual of ``stoning the devil,'' the climax of the annual pilgrimage, or hajj.

Many were running to their deaths.

What was supposed to be a joyful celebration by 2 million Moslems from around the world suddenly became a nightmare of trampled bodies.

Saudi Arabian officials said 1,426 pilgrims died Monday, trapped in the stampede in the 600-yard-long tunnel. Hundreds more were injured.

The monthlong pilgrimage, which every Moslem must make once, was coming to its end. Religious fervor was high.

It was the first day of the three-day Eid al-Adha, or the Feast of Sacrifice, that marks the prophet Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son to God.

Three piles of stonework represent the three devils who tried to tempt Abraham away from sacrificing Ishmael as a demonstration of his faith.

The hajjis - the men in seamless white ceremonial robes as required by Islamic custom, the women in specially tailored clothes covering them from head to ankle - were eager to get to the stone-throwing site in a bowl-shaped vale hemmed in by rocky, scrub-studded hills.

The tunnel - 30 feet wide and 25 feet high - is carved out of the Mo'essem Mountain to funnel the pilgrims to the holy site.

At one end is the tent city where Pakistani and Indonesian hajjis were camped after the ceremonies in Mecca, birthplace of the prophet Mohammed and Islam's holiest shrine.

The other end leads to the stoning arena, called Gamarat Aqabah. Nearby, there is a slaughterhouse, used by the hajjis to kill hundreds of thousands of sheep during the three-day feast.

It was 10 a.m. when disaster struck.

Thousands of hajjis who had already stoned the devil were returning from Gamarat Aqabah on a pedestrian bridge from which they had cast their pebbles, heading for the tunnel entrance.

Under the pressure of the human tide, the railing on the bridge collapsed. Seven pilgrims tumbled 25 feet off the bridge into the crowd of people coming out of the tunnel.

The bodies crashing into the throng touched off panic. Only those at the entrance of the tunnel knew what had happened.

Behind them, pilgrims continued to move inside. Soon the tunnel, which has a capacity of 1,000, was jammed with what authorities later estimated at 50,000 pushing, shoving pilgrims.

Pilgrims heading for Gamarat Aqabah were also ignorant of what had happened, and they kept thrusting forward.

Soon those trapped inside the tunnel began screaming. The panic spread like wildfire.

Witnesses said many feared terrorists had struck, as they did in Mecca last year when bombings killed one man and wounded 16 others.

In 1987, more than 400 people were killed in riots that Saudi authorities say were instigated by Iranian militants.

Soon after the accident at the mouth of the tunnel, there was a power failure. The lights went out and the ventilation system went off.

The temperature outside was 112 degrees. The tunnel became a furnace.

People began to faint, particularly the elderly, in the suffocating congestion. Men and women tried to claw their way out in the darkness, trampling over the fallen.

It was the same outside.

``No one could go forward or back. . . . People were falling on each other, the bodies piling on each other. . . . There was a mad rush and screaming,'' an aide to the Interior Minister, Prince Nayef, said on Saudi television.

One survivor said: ``It was terrible. People were rushing in opposite directions. When one stumbled, scores trampled him . . . and hundreds fell on top of them in no time.''

Another, a Lebanese, sobbed: ``I was pushed and fell over about 20 corpses. Others were still pushing in two directions and walking on top of me. May God forgive me for trampling on the others.''

Security police forced their way through the sea of pilgrims to rescue those trapped in the tunnel, which by then had become a tomb. They sealed off both ends of the tunnel and threw ropes inside to pull out anyone who could grab hold. They also threw in plastic bags of cold water for those trapped to drink until they could be reached.

First aid squads treated hundreds on the spot. Ambulances nosed through the crowds, taking the injured to hospital, the dead to the morgue.

The wailing and weeping soon diminished, replaced by a numbed quiet.

For Islam's faithful, dying in Mecca is supposed to be a joyful thing. But for those who lost relatives and friends, there was the ordeal of going to Mecca's 10 hospitals looking for them, trying to find out if they were dead or alive.

Four Egyptian men with bloodshot eyes stood outside a morgue seeking word of a missing companion, whom they lost during in the crush.

They had been 10 yards from the mouth of the tunnel when disaster struck. Their friend had been ahead of them. They never saw him again.